What a difference a year makes

Posted on Jan 21 2013 - 5:33pm by Logan Kirkland

Austin McAfee | The Daily Mississippian

The past year has been quite a turnaround for Ole Miss athletics, especially Rebel football.

At this time last year, it seemed like nothing was going right for any athletics program on campus.

Head football coach Hugh Freeze was working tirelessly on the recruiting trail hoping to get Ole Miss out of the SEC cellar, while hoping to get nearly 30 of his players academically eligible for the fall. Rebel basketball was sitting at 13-6 overall and 3-2 in SEC play. And on top of all of that, Ole Miss was looking for a new leader for their athletics department. 

One year later, fans are excited about the future of the football program after Freeze led his squad to a 7-6 record with a win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl Jan. 5 and head basketball coach Andy Kennedy has his team off to the best start since the 1936-37 season with a 4-0 record in conference play.

The difference? Leadership.

Ever since Ross Bjork was named as the new athletics director at Ole Miss, there’s been a renewed energy throughout the athletics department from the players, coaches and fans.

Freeze surpassed everyone’s realistic expectations in year one on the gridiron, and from the looks of things in the recruiting world, Freeze is looking to take the next step with his football program.

In the past week, the Rebels have garnered commitments from Laquon Treadwell, who is the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 5 overall prospect according to Rivals.com, Marcus Robinson, a three-star linebacker from Memphis and Elijah Daniel, a four-star defensive end according to Rivals.com, but it doesn’t stop there.

Currently, Ole Miss ranks No. 10 in Rivals.com, No. 12 in Scout.com, No. 13 in 247sports.com and No. 19 in ESPN’s team recruiting class rankings.

That number is sure to go up as National Signing Day (Feb. 6) nears if Ole Miss can land other top prospects they are in on like Robert Nkemdiche, who is the No.1 prospect on all services, Laremy Tunsil, the nation’s top offensive tackle on all services, and Antonio Conner, the No. 2 safety in the country by ESPN, among others.

There will some bumps in the road before Feb. 6 rolls around, but there will be some excitement, too. Freeze is building a contender.

He said in year one he wanted his team to compete, and they did that. In year two, he will likely ask his team to finish games they failed to in 2012. After that, with the amount of talent he’s bringing in, there’s no telling what Freeze could be asking for and receiving from his team.

On the hardwood, the results have always spoken for themselves.

Ole Miss has always had basketball on the back burner as far as attention and focus from fans go, and really with the past results, it’s to be expected.

Kennedy has yet to take his team to the NCAA Tournament in six years at the helm. In fact, the Rebels haven’t made it to the big dance since 2001.

But this year, it’s been different, at least so far. Senior leadership from Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner and Nick Williams in addition to the energy from junior guard Marshall Henderson has Ole Miss sitting atop the SEC standings with 4-0 start in league play and a 15-2 record overall.

This may be the best opportunity since Kennedy has been in Oxford to clinch their ticket for March Madness. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, 14 SEC games actually, but the Rebels, certainly, couldn’t have asked for a better start.

On top of that, the fans have shown up as Tad Smith Coliseum has had two consecutive sellouts.

Usually, students and fans are waiting for the days of baseball at Swayze Field to roll around. Not to say there isn’t excitement around head coach Mike Bianco and his program, but right now, fans want to watch Ole Miss basketball.

Why the sudden change in culture? Leadership.

Ole Miss now has a guy in Bjork who isn’t afraid to challenge the fan base.

He did it in football and nearly broke the all-time season attendance record at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which is sure to be broken in the next few years, and now, he’s getting the Rebel faithful to pack out the “Tad Pad” for basketball games.

Not to mention, the 50,000 plus Rebel fans that packed Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. for Ole Miss’ bowl win.

Things are just different in Oxford these days.

It doesn’t matter what sport you’re talking about or who you’re talking to. There’s a feeling of belief that hasn’t been around in some time, and who would’ve thought it could be last year?

What a difference a year makes.